Today is Armistice Day, and I want to pay tribute to Reg Hill, one of the last of the Old Contemptibles.
He was awarded the Croix de Guerre with star for conspicuous gallantry and I was sent to interview him when I worked on a weekly newspaper. Being a junior reporter and only 19 I didn’t really know much about anything, and that day when I arrived on his doorstep in November 1978 was no exception. My knowledge of the Great War was fairly sketchy and I had just pushed the doorbell when I realised I had nothing to write on and nothing to write with.
But by then it was too late. Reg had already opened his front door. He was 96 and he looked small and vulnerable. I couldn’t help thinking that he actually looked like a tortoise that had lost its shell. But in two ticks he had welcomed me in, brushed off my ineptness, put the kettle on and given me a pen and a fancy boxed set of paper and envelopes to write on.
Reg was with the British Expeditionary Force present in France up to to the end of the First Battle of Ypres on 22 November 1914. Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany, who was famously dismissive of the BEF, reportedly issued an order on 19 August 1914 to ‘exterminate… the treacherous English and walk over General French’s contemptible little army.’
Sixty four years later Reg settled into his armchair and said, ‘There’s only three of us Old Contemptibles left in North Bucks now. That’s what Kaiser Bill called us. So we thought, right, that’s our name then.’
Reg was a sergeant artificer in the Rocket Troop of the Royal Horse Artillery in 1916. ‘We were in the trenches after a bit of a do, and we were being shelled and I heard this voice shouting, ‘Blesse, blesse,’ and I knew that meant, wounded, see, in French. So I put my head above the parapet and I could see this bloke lying out in No Man’s Land. I couldn’t just leave him there, could I?’
Despite his mates’ best advice not to risk it, Reg scrambled over the top, under fire, ran to the man and heaved him on to his back.
‘We were heavily shelled – I had to jump into shell holes three times on the way back,’ said Reg. ‘Terrible places, they were. Full of water.’
And he carried that man on his back all the way to the nearest first aid post. ‘They made such a fuss when I got there,’ he said, in some wonderment. ‘And being French, they insisted on plying me with wine before they let me go back.’
Reg went on to fight at Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele, and survived both, before being invalided out with a wounded arm.
‘I always go to the Remembrance Day services,’ he said. ‘Because I lost some good chums. No mistake about that.’
Reg died not long after that interview and was missed by many. I still think of him.